Thursday, April 14, 2005

The traditions of British magic

Fantasy by non-American authors seems to be becoming easier to find in this country. Partly it’s because Todd and I now shop at, which opens us up to books published all over the Commonwealth. Partly, I think, the immense commercial success of Terry Pratchett and J. K. Rowling has inspired American publishers to take chances with British authors especially.

Anyway, in the last few years I have read quite a few fantasies by newer authors from outside the US, and I’ve noticed something interesting. Compared to other English-speaking authors, British fantasists seem much less likely to address the question “How does magic work, anyway?”

Consider two talented newcomers on the scene: Susanna Clarke, author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and Jon Stroud, author of the Bartimaeus trilogy. Fine authors, both, I’m looking forward eagerly to the next Bartimaeus book. (Word of warning: don’t read “Strange and Norrell” in the bathtub, it will give you tendinitis.) But neither offers much inquiry into the structure of the universe that makes magic possible; even though the title characters of “Strange and Norrell” spend most of the book engaged in rediscovering and reinventing magic, one gets no sense of any guiding theory behind their efforts.

Compare a brief sample of some currently popular fantasists from other countries: R. Scott Bakker (Canadian), author of the Prince of Nothing series. Garth Nix (Australian), author of the Abhorsen books, presently about halfway through Keys to the Kingdom. Carol Berg (American), author of the rai-kirah series and the Bridge of Avonar series. Rachel Caine (American), author of the Weather Warden series. If you have read any of the above authors, you’ll see my point: In all cases, the nature and structure of magic are important parts of the background of the story, and in many cases they are major plot elements in their own right. Characters tend to solve problems by reasoning logically from their understanding of the rules of magic.

Before I go any further, I have to point out that there is an outstanding exception to this generalization about British authors, and that is of course Terry Pratchett. Pratchett is, however, less an exception to rules than a maker of the next generation's rules: long may he wave.

Now, there are way more writers out there than any one person can possibly read, so I'm in no real position to say whether this is a general trend or not. And if it is, where is it being generated? Are Brits really more likely to just accept that “magic works”, and less likely to delve into the logical structure behind it? Are British publishers responding to some deeply engrained notion that stories about the science of magic simply don't sell to their target audience? Do American publishing and marketing firms think that British fantasy should conform to some “fairy-tale”-like stereotype, which doesn't lend itself to this sort of inquiry? And I've neglected several other English-speaking nationalities for lack of examples.

So, what does it all mean?

I don't really want to get into what this generalization (if it's at all valid) might say about the “national character” of various countries. On the other hand, the stories we choose to tell ourselves do say something about us. From the examples I've seen and cited, it seems that British fantasy tends to revolve around a notion of magic as tradition, whereas fantasy written in the US, Australia, and Canada seems to revolve equally strongly around a notion of magic as a research discipline.

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